Movie Review: An Indian woman comes into her own under the Raj in “Dhaupadi Unleashed”

Here’s a little soapy escape from the calamities of the day, an Indian “Joy Luck Club” set in a “Downton Abbey” world.

“Draupadi Unleashed” is a multi-generational saga about the struggles of women in the Indian patriarchy, limiting most of its story, struggles and commentary to life under “The Raj,” Britain’s rule of India which ended in the late 1940s.

It’s based on a book by Nisha Sabharwal, who co-directed it and delivers its voice-over narration (it’s all in English). And it takes as its inspiration a character from Indian literature’s “Mahabharata.” Draupadi was a woman who was the subject of a five way tug of war, an apt description of our heroine here.

The setting is the “Little London” of Quetta,a city now Pakistani but once an island of affluence in British-occupied India. No British intrude on this world in the movie. There’s no sign of the social unrest Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, India’s underclasses, were involved in.

We’re introduced “to my fifteen year old mother” Sita (Indigo Sabharwal) as “she is about to meet her husband.” It’s 1915, and the young woman bristles at the arranged marriage, the “traditions” that are harped on, her instructions from her parents — “Don’t speak…Look down at his feet.”

It looks like a promising marriage, but she is the first to have a vision of a shirtless little boy who foretells “Soon, you shall find liberation.”

And so she does.  Her husband dies in his sleep. She goes off to live with her mother-in-law.

Years later, Sita (now played by Melanie Chandra) and that mother-in-law (Anna George) prep Sita’s daughter, our narrator Indira (Salena Qureshi) for her own “meet the man you might marry” moment. Indira is even less enthusiastic about the handsome sugar baron Amar (Dominic Rains) she is set up with.

Because she’s just met a younger and more handsome cousin (Taaha Shah Badusha). And they’re already “kissing cousins.”

“I would NEVER be fully Amar’s!” And when Amar sees her smooching on Cousin Guatum, he realizes that, too.

What IS a girl to do? Aside from have visions of the same comforting boy spirit her mother saw. And then there’s the mind-reading and wise Swami G (Cas Anvar), who regards her “as if he was unwrapping my sari!”

“You can see your future,” he counsels. “You destiny is set, Little One. Lord Krishna’s will be done!”

Arrangements can be made, nothing is permanent, we’re all very SOPHISTICATED about these things, and there’s lots of foreshadowing of earthquakes in between the rituals, references to The Raj and Rolls Royces.

The rituals are one thing you fall into with this soap opera — the tradition of a bride’s entry into her husband’s home,“Griha Pravesh,” her tipping over of a vase filled with rice and colored herbs to mark her footprint.

Another noteworthy trait of this American-made Indian film (again, in English) is the beautiful cast. There’s a Miss India mixed in here with the exceptionally striking women and men of various generations.

The sexuality here is more explicit than you’d ever seen in a Bollywood production, although tame by Hollywood standards.

What isn’t noteworthy, or even terribly sensible, is the plot. The message, repeated repeatedly between women, from the swami to Indira, is “You are not born slaves.”

But in 1930s India, that must’ve been hard to swallow, even among the elite and their “sophisticated” arrangements.

Qureshi, George and Savar are the stand-outs in the cast, doing what they can with thinly-drawn characters and predictably melodramatic situations. The lush settings and high living implied are just that — implied. The film doesn’t revel in its decadence or reach for heightened soap opera reactions to the over-the-top situations.

It’s all just as soapy and unreal as “Downton Abbey,” with little of the mother-daughter-“sacrifice” of poignancy of “The Joy Luck Club.”

They had an interesting world to work with, and an interesting era in that world. But “Draupadi Unleashed” is a romantic soap opera entirely too restrained for its own good.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, a tad more sexually explicit than most Indian cinema

Cast: Salena Qureshi, Anna George, Dominic Rains, Cas Anvar, Azita Ghanizada, Taaha Shah Badusha

Credits: Written and directed by Tony Stopperan, Nisha Sabharwal, based on the novel by Nisha Sabharwal. Passion River release.

Running time: 1:50

 

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